Welfare conditionality as a child protection tool
In the Northern Territory, child protection case workers can call for families to be subject to “Child Protection Income Management” if they believe this form of conditional welfare will improve child outcomes. This article summarises a recent research study into its use and effectiveness. The article describes the aims and methodology of the study, how the Child Protection Income Management scheme operates, the characteristics of families referred to the scheme, referrals to other support services and interventions, and the views of caseworkers on its effectiveness.
Child neglect is a significant issue in Australia, as it is many other countries. While the primary responses to child neglect are child protection and welfare systems and legal processes, welfare conditionality is increasingly being used to try to ensure that children receive the best possible parenting and are not neglected.
The use of welfare conditionality to seek to improve the wellbeing of children is not unique to Australia. For example, a number of Latin American and other developing countries have made use of conditional cash transfers; making the receipt of cash transfers conditional on parents undertaking activities that promote the wellbeing of children, such as sending them to school and accessing preventative health services, as well as seeking to protect children from violence and neglect (McLeigh 2014; Roelen, 2014; Jones & Villar Marquez, 2014).
In Australia, a particular form of welfare conditionality—income management—has been used to try to improve the welfare of children of income support recipients, including in cases of child neglect. Income management is a relatively recent development in the Australian social security system, having been first introduced into parts of the Northern Territory, Western Australia and Queensland for some people in receipt of income support payments. The policy limits the amount of income support paid to people as an unconditional cash transfer and imposes restrictions on how the remaining—sometimes termed “quarantined”—funds can be spent. Income management was designed to ensure that these funds are spent on essential “basic” items and to limit the amount of income that can be spent on tobacco, alcohol, pornography and gambling. Most income-managed funds are spent through a BasicsCard—a PIN (Personal Identity Number) secured debit card. These cards can be used at approved merchants to purchase non-excluded items and cannot be used to make cash withdrawals.
This paper provides an overview of the application of income management in child protection cases and reports on the results of a recent evaluation of the effectiveness of income management as a child protection tool in the Northern Territory. The evaluation was commissioned by the Australian Government Department of Social Services (DSS), which has responsibility for the income management policy. A detailed overview of the operation of income management in the Northern Territory, the background to the evaluation and the detailed evaluation findings are reported in Bray, Gray, Hand, Bradbury, Eastman and Katz (2012) and Bray, Gray, Hand and Katz (2014).
Income management was first introduced in 2007 as part of the Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER). The NTER was an initiative taken by the Australian Government in response to concerns about child sexual abuse, alcohol and substance abuse and violence in Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory (see the report Northern Territory Government Board of Inquiry into the Protection of Aboriginal Children from Sexual Abuse: Ampe akelyernemane meke mekarle (Little children are sacred) (Northern Territory Government, 2007). Under the NTER, Income management (NTER IM) was applied to all persons who had received income support for more than two years and lived in “prescribed areas”. These areas included all land held under the Aboriginal Land Rights Act (Northern Territory) 1976, all Aboriginal community living areas and all Aboriginal town camps. As the policy was geographically targeted at specific Indigenous communities, and therefore applied almost exclusively to Indigenous people, it required the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act (Cth) 1975 (RDA). Forms of the program were also introduced in some locations in Queensland and Western Australia.
New Income Management (NIM) was introduced in the Northern Territory in the second half of 2010. It replaced NTER IM. NIM is designed to operate in a non-discriminatory way, enabling the restoration of the RDA. NIM differs from NTER IM in a number of ways. It applies across the Northern Territory as a whole, it is not applied on a compulsory basis to those on the Age Pension and Disability Support Pension, it comprises a number of specifically targeted streams, and people can seek an exemption based on their behaviours—such as recipients ensuring their children are immunised and attend school or through participation in employment and/or study for people without dependent children.
Income management in the Northern Territory is the form of income management that applies to the largest number of people in Australia. In August 2015 there were 20,2778 people in the Northern Territory subject to income management, while across Australia, 26,231 people, in total, are subject to income management.1
In the Northern Territory there are several different types of income management operating. The main streams of the program are:
- Disengaged Youth for people aged 15 to 24 years who have been on income support for more than three out of the past six months;
- Long-Term Welfare Payment Recipients for people aged 25 years and over who have been on income support for more than 12 months in the past two years;
- Voluntary Income Management for people on income support payments who are not targeted for any of the compulsory measures but want to be income managed;
- Vulnerable Income Management for people who are assessed as being vulnerable by Centrelink social workers or who fit other criteria related to vulnerability;2 and
- Child Protection Income Management for people referred by Northern Territory Government child protection workers in cases of child neglect.
The proportion of income support payments subject to income management is 50% for all of the streams of income management except for Child Protection Income Management, which has a rate of income management of 70%.
In order to understand the operation and impact of Child Protection Income Management in the Northern Territory it is important to understand something of the context within which it has been implemented. The Northern Territory is an Australian territory located in the centre and central-northern regions of Australia. It has an area of 1,420,970 km2 and has a population of around 250,000 (ABS, 2015) of whom slightly more than half live in the main City of Darwin. Across the Northern Territory, just under 30% of the population are Indigenous and in remote areas three-quarters of the population are Indigenous. A much higher proportion of the Indigenous population receives an income support payment than is the case for the non-Indigenous population—in December 2013, 26% of the adult population (aged 15 years plus) were Indigenous and the Indigenous population accounted for 63% of income support recipients.
Child protection is a significant policy concern in the Northern Territory. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW; 2015) reported that in 2013–14, 71.3 per 1,000 children in the Territory were receiving child protection services, compared with an Australian average of 27.2 per 1,000. In 2013–14, a total of 4,909 child protection investigations were undertaken as a result of 12,950 notifications to the Northern Territory’s Department of Children and Families. Of the 1,394 cases of substantiations of reports received during 2013–14, the main reason was neglect (48% or 665 cases), followed by emotional abuse (31%), physical abuse (19%) and sexual abuse (2%) (AIHW, 2015). Compared with other jurisdictions, the proportion of substantiated cases involving neglect as the primary concern was high, while the proportion of cases with sexual abuse as the primary concern was lower than in other states/territories.
The aims of the evaluation of the Child Protection Income Management component, which was a sub-study of the broader Evaluation of Income Management in the Northern Territory, were to:
- assess the impact of Child Protection Income Management on children and families;
- identify which groups of clients are most/least likely to benefit from Child Protection Income Management;
- study the reasons for child protection clients being referred or not referred to income management;
- examine the services and supports families have accessed while on Child Protection Income Management; and
- understand why Child Protection Income Management has been renewed or discontinued and whether clients have continued on other forms of income management following their exit from Child Protection Income Management.
While the focus of this paper is on Child Protection Income Management operating in the Northern Territory, income management is also being used in child protection cases on a trial basis in a number of locations across Australia.3 Indeed, the largest number of people on this type of income management is in Western Australia, the geographically largest of Australia’s six states and two territories.4
There have been two evaluations of Child Protection Income Management in Western Australia (see DSS, 2014; ORIMA Research, 2010). The ORIMA study relied heavily on perceptions about the effects of the program and while being largely positive about its impact, the study reported that levels of satisfaction with the program were lower among those on the Child Protection stream when compared to those who had chosen Voluntary Income Management. Caseworkers reported, in their final reviews, that they considered the program to have a positive impact in 63% of cases. The evaluation also noted a view by those administering the program that people may become dependent on the measure. The DSS internal research project mainly involved interviews with program staff and stakeholders, although it also involved contact with 32 people who had been subject to CPIM. The report found that the staff were positive about the program and felt it had assisted people to meet primary needs, while participant views varied strongly, with both positive and negative responses being expressed. The report concluded, “In relation to the ability of Child Protection Income Management to promote socially responsible behaviour, the findings were more varied. Intermediaries thought that income management was effective in helping to reduce financial harassment or humbugging and in reducing the amount of money available for alcohol and drugs. However, families generally experienced multiple problems and needed a holistic approach to support them, with income management being only one component in a raft of support mechanisms” (DSS, 2014, p. 14).
While there are some similarities between Child Protection Income Management in Western Australia, and other locations, and that implemented in the Northern Territory, the operation of Compulsory Income Management in the Northern Territory makes the operation of income management in these two jurisdictions quite different.
Although the basic mechanism by which income management is applied to an individual (i.e., the restriction on how a portion of a person’s income support payments are spent) is the same across the program in these different locations, there are significant differences in the proportion of the income support population to whom income management applies and their characteristics, as well as the mechanisms for being placed on income management.
The remainder of this paper is structured as follows. The next section outlines the research methodology and data sources. This is followed by the evaluation findings as they relate to the operation of Child Protection Income Management in the Northern Territory. The final section explores the findings in regard to the impacts and outcomes associated with the measure.
Methodology and data sources
The analysis presented in this paper draws on a range of data sources including administrative data from the social security department (Department of Human Services/Centrelink) on the number and characteristics of people subject to Child Protection Income Management; interviews with 47 child protection staff (working for the Department of Children and Families) about their views of Child Protection Income Management;5 data from a separate evaluation of the Intensive Family Support Service (IFSS) program undertaken by Colmar Brunton; and case-file interviews with caseworkers from the Department of Children and Families.6
The case-file interviews with child protection caseworkers focused on the details of selected case files where a primary carer had been referred to Child Protection Income Management. Interviews were conducted with 23 Department of Children and Families staff, regarding 32 cases.7 The data from the evaluation of the IFSS included survey responses from 14 IFSS service provider staff members about their perceptions of the impacts of Child Protection Income Management on the clients they worked with, as well as a summary of qualitative interviews with a range of services providers in the Northern Territory concerning their perceptions of Child Protection Income Management.
Operation of Child Protection Income Management
This section provides an overview of the operation of Child Protection Income Management in the Northern Territory. It discusses the numbers and characteristics of people subject to Child Protection Income Management and explores how the policy is implemented in practice. Drawing on policy documents from the Department of Children and Families as well as interviews with managers and caseworkers from the department about their use of the measure, it considers the circumstances in which referrals are made, the nature of families who are referred to Child Protection Income Management and the supports that are put in place for these families in addition to income management.
Overview of the operation of Child Protection Income Management in the Northern Territory
As noted above, Child Protection Income Management in the Northern Territory differs in some important respects from the more general form of compulsory income management that applies to income support recipients across the Northern Territory. The key differences are the higher proportion of income subject to income management, 70% compared to the standard rate of 50%, and the referral process. Specifically the program is provided as a tool that can be used by the child protection department (Northern Territory Department of Children and Families) to assist in the management of child neglect. Child Protection Income Management is applied at the discretion of a child protection caseworker and can be applied only to an individual who is the subject of a child protection intervention (or their partner) who is receiving an income support payment. It is important to note that the policy only applies in the case of child neglect, not in cases of child abuse.
In deciding to refer someone to the social security agency (Centrelink) for Child Protection Income Management, the child protection caseworker is required to consider: the best interests of the child or young person; the manner in which Centrelink benefits are being used; the availability of additional support services such as financial management services; and whether income management will improve their circumstances (Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs [FaHCSIA], 2011).
The main ways in which individuals on Child Protection Income Management can exit from income management are if:
- the period of income management specified in the original notice ends;
- the relevant child protection worker revokes the notice to apply income management; or
- the person is no longer receiving an income support payment, or they don’t receive an income support payment and their partner’s income support payment ceases.8
To support the implementation of this measure the Northern Territory’s Department of Children and Families has developed a policy statement and a number of forms and materials for assessments and for working with families. These documents provide a framework for caseworkers to make decisions about the need for and appropriateness of referrals to Child Protection Income Management.
The policy statement describes Child Protection Income Management as a tool that can support the work of caseworkers in addressing child neglect and harm and that is to be used with, and may enhance the efficacy of, other support services. It is also to be considered when its use would allow a child to stay in the care of their primary carer.
Exceptions to the obligation on caseworkers to refer clients to Child Protection Income Management are available where there is no evidence that the use of the person’s income support payment, or indeed the failure of use of it, has contributed to the child protection concerns.
Characteristics of those on the Child Protection Income Management measure
People subject to Child Protection Income Management make up only a very small proportion of the income management population in the Northern Territory. According to Australian Government administrative data used in the evaluation, in December 2013, the 83 people on this measure represented 0.5% of people subject to income management in the Northern Territory. Figure 1 shows the numbers of people subject to CPIM from July 2010 through to the end of November 2013. While small in the aggregate, there was some increase in the numbers on Child Protection Income Management, from fewer than ten in the first half of 2011 to around 50 in mid 2012 and to around 90 in late 2012.9 By December 2013, a total of 415 people had been subject to Child Protection Income Management. The most recently available administrative data, for August 2015, indicates little change since then, with 84 people subject to the measure.
Figure 1: Number of people on CPIM in the Northern Territory, July 2010 to November 2013
The majority of people subject to Child Protection Income Management are Indigenous (in December 2013, 92% of those on the measure were Indigenous). The majority (81%) were women. Those living as a member of a couple with dependent children accounted for 46%, 43% comprised single parents with dependent children, with the remainder being split between being a member of a couple or a single person with no dependent children. People without dependent children (as defined and recorded) in the administrative data can be subject to Child Protection Income Management in several circumstances, including that they have lost the care of children or have been placed on Child Protection Income Management in preparation for reunification with a child who has previously been removed from their care.10
Child protection staff views on the policy and procedures
All of the child protection staff from the Department of Children and Families interviewed were able to speak about the requirements of the policy, and were aware that there was a requirement to make referrals where neglect had been substantiated. Most also identified the fact that there was the potential to seek exceptions where there was no evidence that the concerns for this family were linked to “how they used their money”.
Many staff who participated in the policy-focused interviews acknowledged that although there was a requirement to make a referral to Child Protection Income Management where there was a substantiation of neglect, the number of referrals to Child Protection Income Management was much lower than the number of substantiated cases. Staff interviewed reported a number of reasons for this. In some cases there was a lack of awareness of the measure due to staff turnover. Referrals were also not made—or if made were not accepted by the Australian Government Department of Human Services/Centrelink (DHS)—when the family involved were not receiving income support payments and were therefore not eligible for Child Protection Income Management. Across all the regions this was noted as an issue. In some cases, through the investigation process, other family members may also step in and take on the care of children. So although neglect has been substantiated, the children may not be in the care of the primary carer by the end of the investigation period, in which case a referral to Child Protection Income Management is not made.
In other cases, staff reported that referrals were not made as the issues for the family were described as not being caused by problems with financial management or related to substance abuse or gambling. In a number of focus groups and interviews there was considerable discussion by the staff who were participating regarding what they perceived as the importance of understanding neglect as a complex issue that was not always related to having money available to spend on children’s needs. Examples given in these discussions were that neglect may instead be related to problematic parent–child attachment, or simply to parents’ poor understanding of the physical and emotional needs of their children and their children’s dependency on them to meet their basic needs. In these cases, some managers and caseworkers saw little benefit in making referrals to Child Protection Income Management, as their clients needed other services—for instance, parenting skills, or child development knowledge. This view was also supported by caseworkers and IFSS staff interviewed as part of the IFSS evaluation:
I think it’s a very simplistic and reductionist view to assume that if you manage people’s income, 70%, that somehow that will address the neglect issues, which in that case you’re almost always talking about whether children are fed or not. I think that’s a really simplistic understanding of neglect. So I guess I wouldn’t base it around that, I wouldn’t base it on Child Protection Income Management as the trigger for the response (i.e., IFSS), I think that’s flawed. I think if you’re wanting to tackle neglect then you probably need a range of supports and services recognising a spectrum. (Manager at Provider interviewed as part of the IFSS evaluation)
While agreeing that money was not the primary factor in all cases, some caseworkers still saw value in trying Child Protection Income Management for these families, as it might help and would not cause harm:
You still have to try it and see. The less money for alcohol and gambling the better. (Caseworker)
Although there was general agreement that not all neglect cases could be assisted by a Child Protection Income Management referral, there were mixed views among Department of Children and Families staff about whether the policy should be changed to reflect the more complex nature of neglect and to allow for greater discretion by caseworkers in making a referral. Most staff emphasised the importance of decisions about referrals being led by caseworker assessments and experience:
The mandated approach is a problem. There’s no space for workers to think about how it could be useful. (Team leader)
However, a number also noted the very low rates of referrals when staff were not compelled to refer to Child Protection Income Management. This included instances where neglect had been substantiated or where other substantiated types of harm included concerns such as substance abuse, failure to thrive and/or gambling:
If it’s not mandated, it would fall by the wayside. (Caseworker)
Other barriers to using Child Protection Income Management in working with families where there had been substantiation of neglect included concerns about lack of access in the smaller, more remote communities to financial counselling or money management services and other family support services:
Staff are more comfortable doing Child Protection Income Management referrals when they have something like Intensive Family Support Services available to wrap around the families. (Manager)
A small number of participants raised concerns about the potential negative impact of referrals to Child Protection Income Management on their relationships with clients who they were trying to work with to improve their parenting, particularly where such a referral might be seen as punitive. However, in contrast to this perspective of income management, other Department of Children and Families staff expressed a view that there often seemed little point in making referrals as the passivity and acceptance of many clients around income management—especially those clients who were already subject to some form of compulsory income management—meant it made little impact on clients’ desire to change:
It’s another thing welfare has put on them. (Team leader)
Most Department of Children and Families clients who were considered as potentially subject to referral to Child Protection Income Management were reported to already be on some form of income management. A number of workers observed that therefore, at times, referrals were not made to Child Protection Income Management because there appeared to be little value in increasing the percentage of income subject to income management:
If [other] income management wasn’t there it would have a different impact. People are already on 50% so the extra 20% doesn’t mean much. (Manager)
However, other workers saw the 70% of income as a useful tool to maximise the pressure on families to meet their children’s needs while they worked with other services to address their issues. There did not seem to be any systematic differences between Department of Children and Families staff who saw the measure as useful in this way and those who did not, either by region or length of time of experience within child protection work.
Characteristics of referrals to Child Protection Income Management
While the DHS administrative data provides some information on the demographic and related characteristics of those placed on Child Protection Income Management, much more limited information is available about the issues families are presenting with when being referred to Child Protection Income Management.
To address this, a detailed series of case-file interviews were undertaken. Although not a representative sample, these interviews offer significant insight into the different circumstances in which these referrals are made and the circumstances of the families involved. This section draws on the 32 case-file interviews undertaken about child protection cases where a Child Protection Income Management referral has been made, and the broader insights from participants in the policy-related interviews.
Most of the referrals had occurred within the context of investigations teams (n = 29) and were made at the time of the substantiation being determined and prior to the case being passed onto Department of Children and Families teams involved in longer-term casework with families.
Reflecting the policy, 31 of the 32 case-file interviews involved a substantiation of neglect as the trigger for referral to Child Protection Income Management. The other case was a reunification case involving a grandparent who had sought the care of her grandchild but was referred to Child Protection Income Management as part of the reunification due to self-identified gambling issues.
Of the neglect substantiations, 26 cases involved drug and/or alcohol misuse. Family violence was also a factor in 12 cases, with emotional harm also substantiated as part of the investigation for some of these cases. Four cases involved medical neglect as the primary concern and four identified lack of supervision as the primary or only concern. Gambling was noted as an issue for a further three.
Almost all (n = 27) of the families had had previous contact with the Department of Children and Families prior to the incident for which the Child Protection Income Management referral had been made. While not all of these contacts had resulted in substantiations, it was reported that many had. The issues identified as part of these earlier notifications, whether substantiated or not, tended to be very similar to those identified as part of the case for which the Child Protection Income Management referral was made. Financial harassment from family or community members was also noted as a concern for six of the 32 families included in the case-file interviews sample.
Very few families were reported as having a strong negative response to being told they were being referred to Child Protection Income Management. Around a quarter of families were reported to have welcomed the referral (n = 8) and one family was reported as having requested the referral. However, mostly families were reported as saying very little about the referral—this tended to be interpreted by Department of Children and Families staff as clients’ passive acceptance of “yet another thing that welfare was doing to them”. Families who were positive about the referral were described as being keen to work to keep their children in their care, to avoid financial harassment or to save for a specific goal such as buying a washing machine.
A number of families—especially those living in more remote areas—were described as being very transient and difficult to locate. This made engaging with these families about their referral to Child Protection Income Management difficult. Delays of months could occur in a referral being made if staff were unable to locate the family and speak with them about the referral and the reasons it had been made, as it is expected practice that the referral is not finalised until a conversation with the family has been undertaken.
There was only limited information regarding the length of time the official referral was made for. This was because this information was not routinely recorded on the Department of Children and Families database, and written notes and records were not available for many of the cases included as they had subsequently been closed or passed onto another team. For ten cases the initial referral was for three months; for eight cases it was for 12 months; and for six cases, six months. The initial referral period for the other eight cases was unknown. Where longer periods of time were chosen, this was usually because workers expected it would take an extended time for families to change as a result of either Child Protection Income Management or the other interventions that had been implemented:
I put them on for 12 months because the neglect had gone on for so long that I thought it would give it time to get it embedded in their thinking. (Caseworker)
Three-month referrals tended to be made for families that were described by caseworkers as being placed on Child Protection Income Management “because of the policy” but where the caseworker had no strong sense that Child Protection Income Management would achieve positive outcomes for the family.
Other supports and interventions for families referred to Child Protection Income Management
Most of the Child Protection Income Management referrals discussed in the case-file interviews were reported as being accompanied by referrals to support services and agencies.
The most commonly reported referral was to an Intensive Family Support Service (IFSS) (n = 19). From the commencement of the program, in July 2011, through to the end of January 2014, 172 families and 449 children had accessed IFSS. Of these, approximately 120 were referred following a referral to Child Protection Income Management.11
Referrals to IFSS were described by many of the staff as crucial to being able to build the capacity of families to care for their children.
It’s a bit easier when you have services working together to realise the same goal. (Caseworker)
The IFSS program provides clients with a highly intensive level of service, which was described by staff as involving almost daily engagement for most families and comprising very practical, hands-on assistance:
They would have someone come into the house at 7:30 to get Mum up and out of bed and the kids to school. (Caseworker)
The service went in for 20 hours a week to show her how to clean the house and maintain it. (Caseworker)
Other types of assistance from IFSS services included case management, budgeting advice, taking children to school, and taking parents grocery shopping to show them the kinds of food and cleaning and other products they needed to buy to ensure the wellbeing of their children.
Many workers who had made referrals to an IFSS program said that being able to make this referral was the primary benefit of Child Protection Income Management.12
It’s a success story because IFSS are right on the ground, doing face-to-face work and assessing daily and looking at budgeting and seeing if food and clothes are there and working with the family. (Caseworker)
Around half of these workers reported that they viewed the two programs as being mutually supportive of each other, indicating, for example, that Child Protection Income Management had a role to play in ensuring the success of the IFSS intervention, as it restricted families’ access to money to buy drugs and alcohol.
Other services and interventions put into place for families referred to Child Protection Income Management included other family support and counselling services—especially family violence services—health services and alcohol and drug rehabilitation services.
While referrals to money management and financial counselling services were seen as important and routinely requested as part of the Child Protection Income Management referral to DHS there was little discussion by caseworkers of these services. As in the first wave of the evaluation, responses to questions about referrals to money management and financial counselling were that this was “something that Centrelink does”. Where caseworkers stated that their clients had received budgeting assistance, this was seen as being primarily delivered by IFSS workers.
Many of the case-file interviews related to families who were from remote communities, especially the smaller communities, and identified a lack of services for caseworkers to refer people to. In particular, there were few services that could provide the intensive support that many of the families needed, as services tended to visit these communities rather than being located permanently in those areas. This lack of services was seen as limiting for caseworkers, who were also concerned about the large time gaps between visiting each family. In these situations, caseworkers reported that they relied on health services and community child safety and wellbeing officers to remain in contact with the families and monitor their progress.
Impacts and outcomes associated with Child Protection Income Management
This section describes the outcomes observed by Department of Children and Families staff for families subject to Child Protection Income Management. It includes interview data from both the policy-focused interviews and case-file interviews. It also includes the responses from IFSS staff surveyed as part of the IFSS evaluation concerning their perceptions of the impacts of Child Protection Income Management on the families they work with.
The perceptions of child protection workers about the impacts of Child Protection Income Management were mixed. Most of the child protection staff interviewed spoke about Child Protection Income Management being useful in some cases and not useful in others. Child Protection Income Management was not seen as being particularly effective by many caseworkers in cases where, for example, the nature of neglect was limited to medical neglect that was based on a lack of understanding or lack of supervision that was related to problems such as inadequate parenting skills rather than alcohol, drug misuse or gambling. However, a smaller number of caseworkers felt that it was not harmful to try Child Protection Income Management in these cases and that it might provide assistance where it was appropriately buttressed by other actions:
Going on 70% helps. Most families benefit from it … When we’ve referred to Child Protection Income Management for 3 months, they’ve learnt a new way of living that is not their usual way. But Child Protection Income Management is not done in isolation. It goes with referrals to services. (Caseworker)
Child Protection Income Management was, in general, seen to be most useful in those cases where there was a very specific problem—Child Protection Income Management could be used in these cases to limit expenditure, and provide structure and stabilisation to household finances. In these situations, the high level of income management (70%) could—where the person was committed to change—limit the cash available to people to buy alcohol, drugs (in particular marijuana) and take part in gambling. Along with this, micromanagement by Centrelink of household spending allowed people to pay their rent and meet their children’s needs while they were still trying to resolve their problems with drugs and alcohol:
If she’d had unlimited access to all her cash, things would have been worse. The most important thing is the next day after a binge she had money for some food (Caseworker).
Crucially, however, these impacts were seen as being effective when they were implemented as one part of a solution for a family along with other supports such as the IFSS and other services as part of a mutually reinforcing web of activities:
It is another support we have put into place that she is working with. (Caseworker)
As part of the case-file interviews, caseworkers were asked what outcomes they had been seeking for the family when they had referred them to Child Protection Income Management. For eight of the cases, caseworkers stated that they did not have any specific goals for Child Protection Income Management but had made the referral simply because it was required by the policy because of a substantiation of neglect. These tended to be medical neglect and lack of supervision cases, as outlined above. In three of the cases, Child Protection Income Management was being used to work towards or support reunification with children. In most cases, the intention was expressed by caseworkers as being a mix of increasing the amount of money available to meet priority needs while limiting the funds available to access alcohol, drugs and/or gambling. In five cases, maintaining access to housing was a key outcome, and in four cases, minimising the impact of financial exploitation was also flagged as a primary reason by caseworkers for making referrals to Child Protection Income Management.
Many of the workers who participated in the case-file interviews stated that it was important to maintain clear goals about what Child Protection Income Management should achieve for families in order for it to be used successfully:
The success of Child Protection Income Management comes down to an understanding of what the options are … If you don’t really know how it works, it’s hard to sell it to your clients … you need to determine what its use is [in a particular case] and it can be successfully used. (Caseworker)
While minimising the impacts of or access to alcohol, drugs and/or gambling was seen as a critical goal for most of the referrals to Child Protection Income Management in the case-file interviews, only four cases were reported by caseworkers as having outcomes where these issues were resolved. Caseworkers reflected that while Child Protection Income Management was able to reduce access to cash money for these products, where clients were not willing to engage with services and work with them to resolve these issues, they were easily able to work around the restrictions of Child Protection Income Management to access money for these addictions. This issue and the ability of clients to work around the restrictions of Child Protection Income Management more generally were also frequently raised in the more policy-focused interviews:
I think she gambles her BasicsCard too … But if they lose their BasicsCard they’ll just go and humbug the winner for food anyway. (Caseworker)
This family is very clever and they have found ways around Child Protection Income Management … Part of it too is the willingness of the family to participate. There are families that don’t want to change. (Caseworker)
Alcohol is not always directly related to money because Aboriginal people are so communal. You can stop someone’s income for accessing alcohol but they can still get it—but at least they still have some money to pay for the kids’ food. (Team leader)
In terms of outcomes as described in the case-file interviews, of the 32 cases, 12 were reported as having ended with the issues being resolved and with no more notifications to date (this includes three instances where the case is still open but is progressing as hoped and expected to be closed soon) and six cases were reported as ongoing with the family continuing to work with the department, but without clear outcomes at this stage. In 15 cases, further notifications in relation to neglect were reported, and 14 cases have ended with the child being removed from the charge of the primary carer or with extended family taking on the care of children.
The 12 cases where issues were resolved and where there were no further notifications were all cases in which the caseworker indicated that the parents were willing to engage with the department and the services arranged to support them, and where there were services available to those families to meet their needs. Not surprisingly, these cases were less complex and tended to involve families who had relatively short-term overall involvement with the department. In some of these cases, Child Protection Income Management had a stabilising influence on families while other interventions were being undertaken.
The cases that had ended with further notifications or the removal of children involved families that had experienced multiple and complex issues and were involved long-term with the Department of Children and Families. Given the small sample size and diversity of circumstances, it is hard to comment specifically on the role of Child Protection Income Management in these cases. However, as indicated above, workers interviewed about these cases believed that Child Protection Income Management and other interventions implemented were worth trying to see if families could be assisted in resolving these issues without removing their children.
As part of the case-file interviews, caseworkers were also asked whether the initial period of Child Protection Income Management had been extended. In six cases, it was reported that Child Protection Income Management had been extended. Extension of Child Protection Income Management usually occurred because it was considered that the measure was achieving positive results and continuation was seen as something the family could benefit from. Three of these families were reported as having requested to stay on Child Protection Income Management. In most of the case-file interviews, caseworkers reported that they had not extended the period on which the person was subject to Child Protection Income Management. This included cases where the children had been removed from the family or where the children had gone to live with another relative. In three cases, the worker did not know if Child Protection Income Management had been extended as the case had been transferred to another team and this information was not noted on the file. In another three cases, the initial referral was yet to expire.
One factor in deciding whether or not Child Protection Income Management should be extended related to whether or not the client would be continuing on another form of income management when their period of Child Protection Income Management ended. For example, in both the case-file interviews and policy-focused interviews, the fact that people would be returning to Compulsory Income Management and 50% income management was seem as a reason to let the referral expire. Conversely, where the primary carer was in receipt of a pension payment such as the Age Pension or Disability Support Pension, caseworkers reported considering carefully whether or not they should continue with Child Protection Income Management. This was due to the fact that these clients would not be subject to any form of compulsory income management, and also because the higher payment rates were seen as making these clients particularly vulnerable to financial exploitation from others who were subject to one of the compulsory forms of income management.
The mixed views about whether or not Child Protection Income Management was able to assist clients with their issues were also reflected in the survey responses of IFSS workers participating in the DSS-commissioned evaluation of these services. Of the 14 people who responded to these survey questions, four gave a response of “don’t know” to each of the items. While the numbers of responses are very small, they do suggest that, as with the case-file interviews and policy-focused interviews, Child Protection Income Management is seen as having a positive impact around half of the time and no impact the rest of the time.
|Possible impact of Child Protection Income Management||A very positive impact a||A somewhat positive impact a||No impact a||Don’t know a b||Total a|
|Improves budgeting ability||1||4||5||4||14|
|Helps parents provide more fresh food for their children||2||4||4||4||14|
|Gets children to school||2||3||5||4||14|
|Reduces financial harassment||3||2||5||4||14|
|Reduces alcohol/substance abuse||2||2||6||4||14|
Notes: a Number of responses. b The same four respondents answered “don’t know” to each of the questions.
Source: IFSS evaluation survey of IFSS staff, 2014.
The data reveal that Child Protection Income Management is perceived by child protection caseworkers as a tool that can be useful in working with families to address their needs where neglect exists due to money management issues where parents are motivated to change their behaviour.
Its primary contribution, where it is effective, is seen to be one of stabilising families and limiting access to money for alcohol, illegal substances and gambling while other interventions are implemented that can address broader issues experienced by these families and create longer-term change, such as improved knowledge of children’s developmental stages, their dependency on parents for care and nurture, and development of the specific parenting skills required to meet children’s health, physical, emotional, social and wellbeing needs.
The effectiveness of income management when used in child protection cases was largely dependent upon the circumstances in which it was used.
- It was generally seen as being most effective in those cases where families were willing to engage with services and with a process of change. Conversely, caseworkers noted that the potential impacts of Child Protection Income Management were limited where families were unwilling make such a commitment, and that in these circumstances families were able to use a number of strategies to circumvent the restrictions of Child Protection Income Management.
- It was seen as a more useful tool for working with families where neglect was linked to the management of money, or alcohol or substance misuse, or problem gambling, with less support for its application in cases where the neglect arose from other causes—although some felt it did not do harm in these situations.
- It was seen as being most effective where it was part of a range of services and where it played a reinforcing role to these.
- In particular, caseworkers and other Department of Children and Families staff we interviewed saw the IFSS service model as being of great value to families referred to Child Protection Income Management and to families where neglect was an issue more broadly. Many attributed the apparently successful outcomes for families referred to Child Protection Income Management to the work of these services in helping families develop understanding of their children’s needs and the basic life skills needed to meet these needs.
- The issue of inadequate support services, especially in more remote locations, was highlighted by many of the staff.
These findings suggest that Child Protection Income Management as a form of welfare conditionality may, in some cases, play some role in improving the wellbeing of children who are receiving child protection services due to neglect and where this neglect is related to money. The initial findings suggest it can be effective where there is a desire by parents to change but has limited, if any, impact when it is simply imposed on people who are unwilling. However, the relatively small numbers of cases where Child Protection Income Management has been used, and the limited information about their circumstances and outcomes and the lack of access to a comparison group, means it is difficult to understand the extent to which Child Protection Income Management is contributing to outcomes compared to other interventions. Further work also needs to be undertaken to better establish the extent to which caseworkers’ decision-making about when to make referrals is also contributing to the impacts of this measure.
1 See Income Management Summary—28 August 2015 <tinyurl.com/gnwhc3e>.
2 Income Management will also automatically apply to people in the NT who are not a full-time student or apprentice, not currently on Voluntary Income Management and are: granted the Unreasonable to Live At Home rate of payment; or younger than 16 years and are granted a Special Benefit payment; or younger than 25 years and released from prison and have received a Crisis Payment within the last 13 weeks.
3 Income management has also been introduced as part of the Cape York Welfare Reform Trial; in five sites around Australia in what is termed “Place Based Income Management”; and in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands in South Australia and the Ngaanyatjarra Lands (NG Lands) and Laverton Shire in Western Australia. It was introduced in Ceduna in South Australia in July 2014 as a further place-based program.
4 It was suggested to the Evaluation that one of the reasons for the relatively small number of people placed on Child Protection Income Management in the Northern Territory was because a high proportion of potential participants were already being income managed under the compulsory measures and that Child Protection Income Management would in these cases result in an increase in the rate of income management from 50 to 70%, and that Child Protection Income Management had been “squeezed out”.
5 This included data collected from a total of 28 Department of Children and Families staff who participated in policy-focused interviews—five group interviews with two to eight participants, and two individual interviews, all conducted face-to-face––and from 23 staff who discussed these issues during the initial part of the case-file interview that focused on their broad approach to using the measure in their work—four of whom also participated in the policy focus groups.
6 IFSS is a free support service that provides intensive support to families in their homes and communities to help them improve the health, safety and wellbeing of their children. IFSS is available to families with children aged 0 to 12 years where neglect has been substantiated and where a parent is on Child Protection Income Management. The referral pathway to IFSS is through Child Protection Income Management by the Department of Children and Families in order to be eligible for the service. The key objectives of IFSS are to reduce child neglect, keep families together, and reduce the use of out-of-home care by enhancing parenting skills. IFSS also aims to strengthen the local Indigenous workforce through the provision of employment and training opportunities for staff involved in the delivery of IFSS (Australian Government, 2013).
7 The case files around which the interviews were conducted were drawn from a sample of 104 families that were within the child protection system and had been referred to Child Protection Income Management. Details of the construction of the sampling frame can be found in Bray et al. (2014).
8 A further way of exiting from income management is if an excluded payment nominee (another individual who is not subject to income management or an organisation) is appointed in relation to the individual.
9 In January 2015 there were 67 people in the Northern Territory subject to Child Protection Income Management (see <data.gov.au/dataset/income-management-summary-data>).
10 There can also be technical reasons associated with how Centrelink defines which parent the child is a dependent of (it is related to which parent the child-related payment (Family Tax Benefit) is paid.
11 Data supplied by DSS in March 2014. It should be noted, however, that some families may have been referred to IFSS without a referral to Child Protection Income Management. DSS has advised that the referral pathway to IFSS is through the state or territory child protection agency. In the Northern Territory, families must be referred to Child Protection Income Management to be eligible for the service. In selected remote service areas, Priority of Access will apply in service areas where there is a limited child protection footprint and Child Protection Income Management referral activity. This will ensure that families on Child Protection Income Management continue to have priority access to the service, but also allow for other families in the community who may not be on Child Protection Income Management or engaged with child protection authorities to access the program while there are vacancies.
12 The requirement for referrals to the IFSS program to be made via a referral to CPIM has since been removed.
Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). (2015). Australian Demographic Statistics, Sept 2014. ABS Catalogue No. 3101.0. Canberra: ABS.
Australian Government. (2013). Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory: Implementation approach for the Intensive Family Support Service, (undated). Retrieved from <www.dss.gov.au/sites/default/files/documents/07_2013/intensive_family_support_services_cope_ip.docx>.
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Bray, J. R., Gray, M., Hand, K., Bradbury, B., Eastman, C., & Katz, I. (2012). Evaluating new income management in the Northern Territory: First evaluation report. Canberra: Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs.
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Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FaHCSIA). (2011). Answers to Estimates Questions on Notice, Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs Portfolio, 2011–12 Budget Estimates Hearing. Question No. 76. Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Canberra.
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Northern Territory Government. (2007). Northern Territory Government Board of Inquiry into the Protection of Aboriginal Children from Sexual Abuse: Ampe Akelyernemane Meke Mekarle (Little Children are Sacred). Darwin: Northern Territory Government.
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Kelly Hand is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Institute of Family Studies, Ilan Katz is a Professor at UNSW Australia, Matthew Gray is Professor of Public Policy and Director the ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods and J. Rob Bray is a Research Fellow at the ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods.
This paper is an edited version of Chapter 13 from the report “Child Protection Income Management” in Bray, J. R., Gray, M., Hand, K., & Katz, I. (2014). Evaluating New Income Management in the Northern Territory: Final Evaluation Report (SPRC Report 25/2014). Sydney: Social Policy Research Centre, UNSW Australia. The views expressed in this paper are those of the authors and may not reflect those of the Department of Social Services, Australian Institute of Family Studies or the Australian Government.